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What Job Always Did

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

October 14, 2018
Job 1:1-22

A Reading from the Book of Job

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you. ”While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you. ”While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you. ”While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.

The way that Texans feel about barbecue is the way that New Jersians feel about pizza. I grew up in New Jersey, and I can certainly attest to you that New Jersey feels very strongly about pizza, partially of course because there are so many deep patterns of Italian immigration in and partially just because over time it soaks in to the popular imagination. New York, of course, has been famous for its pizza for generations for so many of the same reasons. But what only a very few New Jerseyites or New Yorkers will admit is that if you ask people who know, most of them will tell you that the best pizza in the northeast isn’t in New Jersey or New York, either one. It’s not in some boutique artisanal wood-fired oven in Brooklyn or in some strip mall pie-by-the-slice-by-the-CVS in Newark. Folks who know will say that the best pizza in the Northeast is in Connecticut, at Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napolitana in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven.

Wooster Square was a hotbed of Italian immigration in the end of the nineteenth century, and Frank Pepe came along with the crowd. After the First World War, he found a job in a local bakery, and soon enough began selling tomato pies on the side to the folks wandering through the market. Eventually, he bought out the bakery, and in 1925 opened up a pizza joint, selling two varieties — a classic tomato slice, and one with anchovies. A few years later, a local boy started selling fresh-off-the-boat clams in the alley next to the restaurant, and then he started selling them on the half shell inside the restaurant, and then one day Frank Pepe decided to put them on a pizza, and the signature dish of New Haven pizza was born, a white clam pie with oil, garlic, oregano, and a little cheese. If you go there today, very little has changed: that same pizza is still coming out of that same oven and they’ve been doing it the same way for most of a century and that same pizza has been named the best pizza anywhere more times than I can count.

But here’s the thing. As good as Frank Pepe’s is, there are still mysteries about that pizza that they haven’t quite figured out. Behind the restaurant, across the alley where the clams first went on sale, there’s another Frank Pepe’s. Same company. New location, called the Spot. Well, the Spot’s been there since 1981, but still it’s the new location. And the thing is, for reasons nobody can quite understand, the pizza at the Spot just isn’t as good. I mean it’s still world-class pizza. Don’t get me wrong. But the thing is that on any given day the line coming out the door at Frank Pepe’s original Pizzeria Napolitana goes around the block and around the corner at the Spot you can just walk in whenever you want. Because it’s just not quite the same.

It should be the same. There are lots of very good reasons in the world why some pizza is better than others. Sometimes you have better ingredients. Sometimes you have better chefs. Sometimes you have better conditions. But these two restaurants are owned by the same people and staffed by the same people. They take deliveries from the same trucks and use the same recipes. They are hooked up to the same water system. They have the same atmospheric conditions. It’s probably the oven, sure, of course, it’s probably the oven, but these folks are very good at what they do. They know that instrument to a T. They know in their other newer franchise locations you have to run a new oven for literally two months straight before you put a pizza in order to dry out the brick enough for the humidity not to mess with the dough. They know that the best insulation underneath the covered deck of the oven is not in fact more bricks but rather sand, hundreds of tons of which are hiding just underneath the surface. I am comfortable taking it on good faith that these folks who make some of the best pizza in the world know basically everything there is to know about making pizza in general and pizza ovens in specific. I take it on good faith that these folks know the rules of this game better than anyone. It’s just. One pizza is better than the other. So apparently in this little corner, the rules don’t perfectly apply.

I find this very frustrating. The world should be better put-together than this. It brings my inner Job to the surface, but not even the Job of later chapters — we’ll get to him. Even just the Job as we meet him, among the most rule bound characters in all of scripture. “Blameless and upright,” it says, right in in the first verse, “one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Job has got a pretty great life going for himself  — he’s fabulously wealthy, well-connected, the joyful, large family. And Job’s success is presented as a result of his rule-following, he’s constantly in the temple, he’s constantly making sacrifices, he’s Jewish law personified, he’s Jewish ritual personified; he’s Proverbs personified and Deuteronomy personified; “This is what Job always did,” the text says, like he exists almost as mythic caricature of the prosperity that follows from careful, rule-bound observation of the daily ins and outs of Jewish faith. If you follow the recipe. This is what Job always did, and it always works, every time.

Until it doesn’t. You know how that part goes. The Book of Job has a little bit of mythic feel to it and here it comes, that next scene, God and Satan get into an argument. Satan has been around and about on earth and God says “Did you happen to run across Job — he seems to be doing everything exactly right, “ and Satan says, well, sure, because you’ve made it very easy for him; if we started taking away his blessings I’m sure he would not be so diligent. And so this cosmic wager begins, and Job’s life is caught in the cross hairs. In today’s reading, Job’s livestock is taken away, and then his family is taken away. In the next chapter his body will be attacked with disease and he will be left with virtually nothing. And if you know much about the Book of Job you know a bit of what follows is that after these two chapters of narrative setup the book evolves into poetry, forty-plus chapters in which Job and Job’s friends and Job’s well-wishers and Job’s God go round after round about what it means to believe in a being who would let this happen.

But before we even get that far. And we have a few weeks here. Before we get that far, I want you to notice the stakes that the text itself presents. Job begins as a man of rules and patterns, blameless and upright. And then Satan takes away his fortune, and his family. And at the end of this first chapter Job nonetheless falls to the ground to worship, and the text says that in all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing. Which is to say, even though the universe has begun not to follow its end of the bargain, Job continues to do exactly the sort of things that Job has always done. Which means that the question embedded in this introduction is not just “Why do bad things happen to good people?” though that’s so often the way we find ourselves into this story. The question is something like this. What happens when the universe itself doesn’t play by the rules? What is this capricious mystery wherein some days the ingredients add up and some days they don’t? What does it mean that we can do everything right and still the recipe doesn’t work?

Personally, I don’t like it one bit. Among my regular cooking adventures is one baking habit which is that I like to bake a loaf of sandwich bread to have around the house. It’s good for school lunches and morning toast and it’s got enough fat in it to keep it fresh for a week or so and then I bake it again. I’ve been baking the same recipe for a few years now, long enough that I’ve got it mostly memorized but the cookbook falls open to that page anyway so I pull it out just to make sure. I’ve done it enough times to know exactly the amounts of flour and water and salt and yeast, and butter and milk and honey. I’ve done it enough times to know exactly the measuring cups I want to use for each piece. I’ve done it enough times to know which baking pan gets the best results and where in the oven gets the most constant heat. I’ve done it enough times to know just how far to warm the milk and just how sticky to let the dough be and just how long to let it rise. If I know how to make anything in that kitchen it is this loaf of bread, made over and over, week in and week out, according to a recipe I very much know by heart.

But it is also true that every week that bread is a mystery to me. Some weeks it rises beautifully and some weeks, so-so. Some weeks it pops right out of the pan and some weeks there’s a struggle. Some weeks the rising gas cracks through the side of the loaf and some weeks it comes out clean. I find this incredibly frustrating, not so much that the bread gets better or worse but rather that I cannot seem to control the outcome. Nothing I do seems to matter. It makes me feel helpless. Powerless. Because I swear I am doing the same thing over and over; I swear I am doing it the same way I did it last week and the week before and the dozens of weeks before that; I swear I am doing it exactly the same and still the recipe doesn’t always work. And sure, some professional could come in and observe and tell me exactly what I’m doing wrong, I get that, but also, the crew at Frank Pepe’s New Haven Pizzeria has the same basic problem and they can’t figure this out and they are literally among the best in the world at what they do so maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t me; maybe the problem is that the universe doesn’t always follow its own rules. Maybe we can do everything right and still, it doesn’t always work.

So what are you trying to get right? What is the thing where you are doing everything you can and it still might not work? Are you doing everything you can for a job and still you don’t always have anything to show for it? Are you giving everything you can for a family member and still it doesn’t quite take? Are you taking all the pills you’re supposed to take and still nothing quite changes the way it’s supposed to? I feel this here at church all the time, like we do everything we can, like we try and get everything exactly right, like we follow the recipe as best we can and some days it still feels like the dough across the street comes out better. Some of you, I know, are living and breathing this stuff as our current electoral season comes to a fever pitch — if we just make all the right phone calls, if we just raise a few more dollars, if we just put up one more yard sign — like if we do everything right, if we follow this to a T, if we do all the things we’re supposed to do just the way we’re supposed to do them, then this whole creation will come out of the oven perfectly formed. In some ways I wish that were true. It would make the world such a simpler place, and us so much more powerful. But Job is here to remind us that we’re not quite as in control as we might like to be. You can do everything right and still. Just look what happens.

It’s not fair. It’s not anywhere remotely close to fair. The recipe should work, the same way, every time, without fail. If I obey these commandments. If I love God with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul. If I love my neighbor as myself. If I follow this recipe, I should get the same outcome every time, the world should be better aligned, every oven the same, every loaf the same. But also if it were actually thus, what room would God have to surprise us? If it were actually thus, what room would God have to move in ways that we can’t imagine? This, I think, is the Gospel at the opening of this story. That we’re not supposed to believe in the recipe, you and I. We’re not supposed to put our trust in the ingredients. We don’t have faith in the instructions. We have faith in the creator. We have faith in something larger than ourselves. We have faith in something more powerful than ourselves. We have faith in something that reminds us constantly that we’re not actually in charge. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. It doesn’t mean we stop following. But it does mean that maybe we can hold each other a little lightly. Because every one of us is trying to get this right. And none of us can pull it off.

We’re going to spend the next few weeks walking through Job’s story together, which is one of the richer stories in all of scripture but also one of the hardest. Job does not paint the world the way we wish it would be painted, and that honesty takes some work. But my hope is this. Because we are also carrying so many other things. Because so many of you are carrying the worries of the world in so many acute ways. Because so many of you are carrying the worries of your own lives in so many acute ways. Because all of us are trying to so hard to get all of this right and because most days right now do not come out of the oven looking the way we want them to look. My hope is that as we walk through this story that we can hold one another a little lightly. My hope is that we can give one another a little grace, which is after all, the grace that God has given us. So my hope is that as we walk through this uncertain story, and that as we walk through this uncertain season, and that as we walk through this uncertain time when the cracks in creation are on such full display. My hope is that we can walk alongside each other with a little patience, and a little forbearance, and a lot of love.

And my faith is in God the creator, who walks alongside us each and every step of the way, thanks be to God, Amen.